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AL RAYYAN, Qatar — Wheeling out an inflatable World Cup before kick-off just felt cruel. The giant Jules Rimet replica has been a regular feature of the pre-match build-up throughout this tournament but Saturday’s third-place play-off between Croatia and Morocco was the one game that didn’t need it.

This is the only fixture where the participants know they cannot possibly win the trophy they came to compete for.

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And the fact that it takes place just a few days after the pain of a semifinal exit can make it feel like a gruesome afterthought; this was certainly the case for England and Belgium four years ago as two teams with designs on winning the tournament were made to put themselves through another 90 minutes when all they wanted to do was go home.

“It is not really an important game is it, honestly speaking,” said Morocco coach Walid Regragui on Friday, mixed in with more positive messaging about the possibility of an African team finishing third for the first time in World Cup history.

Whether it was a competitive spirit kicking in or a sense of freedom created by the reduced stakes, Croatia and Morocco made this curious occasion a much more enjoyable affair than the last version in 2018.

There were two goals and a marriage proposal inside the opening 20 minutes. Leaving behind the drab 0-0 draw between the sides during the group phase, Luka Modric feigned to take a seventh-minute free-kick. Instead, Lovro Majer clipped a straight ball into the box which Ivan Perisic did brilliantly to twist his body and plant a header back across the box where Josko Gvardiol threw himself into the air to head past Morocco goalkeeper Yassine Bounou.

Less than two minutes later, Hakim Ziyech‘s set-piece was defended poorly by Majer, looping the ball up in the air for Achraf Dari to equalise with a simple header. To the right of the press box, a man chose this state of play to pop the question. He got the answer he was looking for, followed by a sea of mobile phones pointed in the happy couple’s direction, seeking to capture and share in a moment of joy.

That is what Morocco’s tireless fans — and their vibrant team — have brought to this World Cup and there was a sense here that they wanted something tangible to show for their efforts: the bronze medal denoting third place.

Regragui made only three changes, at least one of those enforced due to injury, while his Croatia counterpart had spent the pre-match build-up criticising the appointment of Abdulrahman Al Jassim, who at 35 years of age became the first Qatari referee to officiate at a World Cup and stressing the importance of a medal to his nation. Croatia won bronze in 1998, a moment Dalic cited as “the beginning of our success” before adding that “every medal for us is a big thing.”

The celebrations that greeted what turned out to be the winning goal suggested as much. Bilal El Khannouss lost the ball cheaply on the edge of his own box. Marko Livaja picked it up and fed Mislav Orsic, who lifted a superb curling effort over Bounou to find the net via his left-hand post.

Half-time came and went. The newly-engaged couple posed for more photographs. As if to underline this match becoming an entertaining spectacle in spite of itself, the second half waned as the physical toll of seven matches in four weeks came to the fore.

Andrej Kramaric appeared to be in tears as he walked off gingerly on the hour mark. Dari followed him a few minutes later before Jawad El Yamiq made for the dugout clutching his hamstring. Youssef En-Nesyri missed two late second-half chances to force extra time either side of a few heated exchanges, largely down to disagreements over Al Jassim. But Croatia held on.

Dalic and Modric, 37, embraced. Dalic kissed Modric’s forehead, hopeful that such a remarkable football brain will indeed continue through to Euro 2024. The heavily outnumbered Croatia supporters made their voices heard in recognition of a third “podium finish” after 1998 and a runners-up medal four years ago. Morocco still secured the best-ever result for an African nation.

Modric led up his team to receive their medals from FIFA president Gianni Infantino, who appeared to be booed by supporters as he took his place on the hastily-assembled stage. Gradually, one by one, Modric was joined by his teammates for a photo. Of course, what would normally happen at that point is the captain lifts a trophy — another reminder the real thing is tantalisingly but inescapably out of reach.

Instead, more support staff and family members joined the group to celebrate a moment of success amid the wider lingering sense of disappointment at being the warm-up act for tomorrow’s final.

Morocco had already captured so many hearts but Croatia end their stay in Qatar with a physical reward. It just wasn’t the prize they wanted.

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